Uncertainty over pensions presents an opportunity to demand a more progressive future for all

I recently read about planned changes to university pensions which could leave average scheme members £200,000 worse off in retirement.

In the context of ongoing deeply unfair austerity cuts and research published today by Joseph Rowntree Foundation showing almost 400,000 more UK children and 300,000 more pensioners plunged into poverty in past four years the plight of while collar university staff is unlikely to generate much attention, let alone practical social solidarity.

Rather than be depressed by this, I’m determined to channel my anger into something positive and help build a new politics that’s able to bring people together to demand a future that works for the many, not just the few.

Welcome to a financialised, hyper-individualistic vision of retirement

What upsets me most about the various pension ‘reforms’ I’ve encountered  since I started my working life in 2004 has been the move to place ever greater reliance on the stock and property markets for our retirements.

With defined contribution schemes, income in retirement is uncertain and is tied up with the performance of the stock market. Faced with this an uncertain retirement, it’s not surprising many people have sought security in property, which has contributed to home ownership hitting a 30-year low and robbed many people of safe and secure housing.

Building an equitable vision of work and post-work living

If we are truly facing a pensions crisis, I believe we should be bold and see this as an opportunity to develop a bold new vision for how we live our lives.

For starters, I’d like to see decisions over changes to pensions being made democratically. I believe that if everyone in a workplace was given a meaningful say over changes, we would arrive at fairer decisions. For example, rather than shifting risk onto everyone, a workplace might choose a scheme which provides everyone with a guaranteed basic income, with the defined contribution element only kicking in at higher levels of the pay scale.

I also believe we need to place pensions within a broader conversation about our lives at work and beyond work. To be effective, this should consider a range of issues, including:

  • Pay inequality. Could pensions be made more secure and sustainable by tackling high pay?
  • Universal Basic Income. Could Basic Income offer a way of providing  economic security and freedom throughout life, removing the traditional boundary between work and retirement?
  • Improving the State Pension. If traditional pension schemes are no longer viable, should we focus our efforts on improving the basic State Pension and making it a viable retirement plan?
  • Alternatives to stock market-backed pensions. To date, divestment campaigns have focused on stopping pension schemes investing in tobacco and fossil fuel companies. Should we be more ambitious and demand pension funds are instead diverted to more ethical and productive ends, such as investing in renewable energy and supporting co-operatives and the development of the solidarity economy?

Figuring out what comes next

I’m still far from clear as to how the pensions crisis can be resolved but I hope a future Labour government will be more open than the current government to helping people gain more control over their lives in and beyond work.

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